Michael Eisner on Former Disney Colleagues, Rivals and Bob Iger's Successor
The 74-year-old, who now runs the VC firm The Tornante Company, which produces 'BoJack Horseman,' offers his no-holds-barred take on Michael Ovitz ("a mistake"), Jeffrey Katzenberg ("had to let him go"), the Weinsteins ("troublemakers") and Bob Iger ("different than me, but equally good or better"), among others.
Michael Eisner, the veteran Hollywood executive who served as president and CEO of Paramount Pictures from 1976-1984 and chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984-2005, let it rip on former colleagues and competitors — among them Barry Diller, Roy E. Disney, Steve Jobs, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Bob Iger — during a rare, wide-ranging interview with The Hollywood Reporter this week. The 74-year-old now runs a venture capital firm, The Tornante Company, which finances BoJack Horseman, the animated comedy series that streams on Netflix, among many other projects.
Of Ovitz, the former CAA chief who Eisner hired to become Disney's president following the sudden death of Frank Wells — and then fired after little more than a year at a reported cost of $140 million — Eisner says, "I made a mistake." He elaborates, "Everybody — Warren Buffett, Tom Murphy, everybody — thought this was the most brilliant move ever made. He was on the cover of magazines as 'the most powerful guy in Hollywood.' He was enough younger than me that it would be a very comfortable thing. It just didn't work. He was the opposite of Frank Wells. It was a partnership that was born in hell. Whether it was his fault or my fault is irrelevant. … Very quickly, I realized it was a mistake. … It only took a year to get out of it, but it was a year of difficulty."
Another Disney employee whose departure cost Eisner a lot of capital — financial and otherwise — was Katzenberg. When Katzenberg, who followed Eisner from Paramount to Disney and was nicknamed Eisner's "Golden Retriever" for his loyal service, was not promoted to president upon Wells' death, he was furious and sued the company for $250 million. They later settled, and Katzenberg went on to form DreamWorks Animation, the animation studio that is now Disney's principal rival. "Rightly so, Jeff Katzenberg wanted to be promoted," Eisner says. "I'm not sure that was the right idea. But Roy E. Disney [Walt Disney's nephew and a force on Disney's board who Eisner says "could be a troublemaker"], who did not like him at all — I forget the reason, but Jeffrey probably did not treat him the way that Roy would have wanted to be treated — said to me, 'If you make him the president, I will start a proxy fight.' So that was out of the question. Couldn't do it. Had to let him go." Eisner adds, "I probably could have talked him into doing something less than that [president], but Roy made it absolutely crystal clear, and it wasn't worth the fight."
Few people were more of a headache to Eisner than Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the brothers behind the art-house film company Miramax Films, which Eisner brought to Disney for $60 million in 1993 and then dumped in 2010 following a series of clashes over the Weinsteins' spending and behavior, culminating in a dispute over Michael Moore's controversial 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. "That was just a peripheral pain in the ass," Eisner vents. "They're kind of troublemakers. I said we would release the film after the election. The Disney Company is a nonpartisan company. This is totally a partisan film. After the election." He continues, "Well, they paid for it through some fund that we didn't know about, and the next thing I know, 'We do own it.' And we put our foot down." Eisner says Fahrenheit 9/11 was but one of many issues he had with the brothers Weinstein. "Frankly, they were entertaining in areas that had nothing to do with making movies — Talk magazine and all these things — and we were losing a lot of money with them. I mean, really a lot of money. We put our foot down. Unfortunately, they were the darlings of the New York press, so I was the heavy, but that's OK. I was responsible to the Disney shareholders, and I was not about to let them [the Weinsteins] lose — as they have for a lot of people — a lot of money."
Eisner emphasizes that he's more of a fan of the man who succeeded him at Disney when he was finally out of the company in 2005 after a 21-year run: Iger, who came to Disney as part of the famous Capital Cities/ABC deal that Eisner negotiated, bringing ABC, ESPN and Lifetime under the Disney banner. "I would not have agreed to [leave] if it hadn't been Bob," Eisner insists. "Because of governance, they wanted a big search and everything. … And by the end of the search, it was clear that I was able to convince the board — our newly constructed board — that Bob was great."
Eisner says of Iger and his oversight of the company over the past 11 years, "He's different than me but equally good or better. What he saw was the same thing I saw when we bought Capital Cities/ABC. We'd had the growth, to a certain point. To continue the growth, what do you do? He did what I don't think I would have done, which is great: He bought Pixar and bought peace with Steve [Jobs] for much too much money, in my opinion. However, it all worked out well because they delivered. … I had looked at Marvel many, many years earlier and not done it. He did [deals to acquire] Marvel, and he did Lucasfilm. So what Bob did was he protected the company, I think in the medium-term. Something's gonna have to happen in the next five years, but right now? He used an acquisition strategy, where I used a growth-from-inside [strategy] plus Capital Cities/ABC."
As for whom Eisner would have liked to succeed Iger (who has announced that he will be leaving Disney in 2018), he volunteers: "I hired Tom Staggs before Bob had ever been there — we hired Tom Staggs — and I think he's very good. I thought that was a good choice. It obviously, just like any other partnership, wasn't working. [Staggs, who rose to COO at Disney, announced in April that he would be leaving the company after its board declined to guarantee him Iger's job.] So now what? "It would be better if they found it from inside — it's always better from inside; the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know — but they may not."